Duel of Despots: Bartle Bull on the Iran-Iraq War

November 12, 2015

The Duel of Despots
After eight years, 680,000 people had been killed, the borders hadn’t moved an inch and the two regimes were more entrenched than ever.
Nov. 11, 2015 6:46 p.m. ET
The widening Syria conflict reminds us every day of the dangers of the argument, ironically calling itself “realist,” that a Middle East of dictators is perforce the safest version of that region we may hope for. Like the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the argument refuses to slink off into the historical night. Pierre Razoux’s heavyweight work of history, “The Iran-Iraq War,” thus comes at an opportune time. The longest conventional war since the fall of Napoleon, and a world-embroiling slugfest of despots if ever there was one, the 1980-88 conflict is also the most recent case of total war.

Hostilities began in September 1980, a year and a half after the fall of the shah of Iran. The Islamic Republic was in a do-or-die internal struggle against secular revolutionaries, monarchists and ethnic separatists such as the Kurds, Baluchis and Turks. Saddam Hussein,sensing weakness in Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s position and an opportunity to rid himself of a neighboring regime that threatened to inspire his own Shiite majority, launched a first wave of 192 warplanes and 100,000 ground troops at Iran. The Iranians were taken by surprise, but by December the war had settled into a lasting stalemate.

Eight years later, 680,000 people had been killed, including some 100,000 civilians. Nine thousand tanks and armored vehicles, 950 warplanes, 30 naval ships and 72 international commercial vessels had been destroyed. Some $1.1 trillion (double that amount in today’s money) had been spent by the two principals. Their borders did not move an inch, and the two regimes that went into the war emerged from it more firmly entrenched than ever.

It was a spectacular affair, fought from the snowy uplands of Kurdistan to the marshes at the head of the Persian Gulf, in freezing winters and furnace-like summers. From dogfighting F-14s to waves of unarmed children clearing minefields with their feet, its participants fought with tools at the extremes of the human experience.

Dry as this material may be for some, it adds up to something extraordinary. “They looked like regular private planes, but they sprayed Tabun nerve gas over Iranian positions,” writes Mr. Razoux in a passage typical of his restrained style. His even-keeled thoroughness suits the topic. The military story is one of large mechanized battles of maneuver alternating with inch-by-inch Stalingrad Rattenkrieg (“rat war”), of frogmen and paratroopers, of bayonets in trenches and ballistic missiles raining on cities. Diplomatically, the Iran-Iraq War was just as complex: The conflict saw Israel largely backing Khomeini’s Iran while Saddam was supported by both the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.—which also, through the Iran-Contra arrangement, supplied weapons to Iran via Israel.

Ultimately, as Mr. Razoux makes clear, it was the Islamic Republic’s diplomatic isolation that proved the key difference between Khomeini’s and Saddam’s abilities to keep fighting. “Modern” Saddam, a relatively straightforward conventional strongman, was able to buy arms on credit, while Iran’s revolutionary mullahs had to pay cash. Thus while Iran began the war with a superior arsenal, thanks to the former shah’s defense spree, by the end Iraq was far better equipped. Mr. Razoux estimates that Iraq killed roughly 3.5 Iranian combatants for every Iraqi fighter lost. In the air, Iran’s U.S.-supplied F-14s and F-4s scored 244 victories to 70 against Saddam’s Russian MiGs and French Mirages, but by the end Iraq had six times as many combat aircraft.

Before that, in 1985, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia had conspired to bring both parties—and the U.S.S.R., then bogged down in Afghanistan and still a Cold War foe—to their knees through pressure on oil revenues. Between July 1985 and January 1986, the Saudis quintupled their oil output. The oil price dropped from $30 per barrel to $10; meanwhile the U.S. allowed the dollar, the currency in which oil sales are paid, to weaken by 37%. Unable to buy arms, Iran was forced to overuse its one advantage—manpower. Eventually Iran had to stop fighting when the shah’s weapons ran out and the Iranian public could no longer accept the human losses.

By then the Persian Gulf was infested with mines, littered with burning oil platforms and tankers, and swarming with a hundred warships from both sides of the Cold War divide. Iran was shooting missiles at Kuwait, and the U.S. was destroying Iranian ships and facilities. The war had spread to Lebanon, where in 1983 Iranian proxies blew up a French barracks at the same time as they attacked the U.S. Marines compound in Beirut. Mr. Razoux writes that the French then planted an 1,100-pound car bomb outside the Iranian Embassy, but the device didn’t detonate. Iran, meanwhile, launched numerous deadly terror attacks in Paris and elsewhere on the French mainland.

Immediately after the peace was signed in August 1988, Iran dusted off the shah’s nuclear facility at Bushehr and Saddam revived the nuclear program that the Israelis had destroyed at Osirak in 1981. Long on arms, short on cash and facing a restive home front, Saddam soon enough launched his genocidal efforts against the Kurds and Marsh Arabs. He invaded Kuwait 23 months after the end of hostilities with Iran. The Islamic Revolution, committed to exporting its millennial Islam, had entrenched in Tehran, with the Revolutionary Guards complex—itself created by the war—primed to establish de facto rule over much of the region. Nobody doubts that had either side possessed the nuclear weapons both were seeking, it would have used them.

Mr. Bull’s next book is a history of Iraq.